The United Nations' upcoming International Year of Older Persons should be a sexy issue as the new millennium approaches - after all, the world is aging rapidly.
But the U.N. Trust Fund on Aging, which relies on voluntary contributions from U.N. members, is almost broke. And the United Nations' aging unit only has three people to oversee yearlong activities in 1999."The problem with this issue is that there is no political will," Ambassador Julia T. Alvarez of the Dominican Republic, a champion of senior citizens in the United Nations for many years, lamented Monday. "I think the United Nations member states tend to react to crisis."
The aging crisis hasn't arrived yet, but it's on the way.
One out of 10 people today is now age 60 or older - and every month 1 million people around the globe turn 60, more than 80 percent of them in developing countries. By the year 2050, one out of five people will be over 60. And the older population itself is also aging. By 2050, 27 percent of senior citizens will be over 80, according to U.N. figures.
Increased longevity will so profoundly alter society, Alvarez said, "that we could be left with institutions organized to deal with a world that has passed."
The United Nations has agencies devoted to children and population issues and a development fund for women. What campaigners are hoping is that The International Year of Older Persons in 1999 will put the age boom on the global agenda.
Alexandre Sidorenko, the U.N. official in charge of coordinating preparations for the year's activities, said society has not absorbed the impact of the demographic changes. For example, more than 20 years were added to the average life span from 1950 to 1995, he said.
"What are individuals supposed to do with these additional years? In some countries it's more than 30 years living after retirement," he said. "It's a challenge for the individual, but it's also a challenge for the society."
Sidorenko spelled out some of the challenges at a news conference ahead of the official launch by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday, the eighth observance of The International Day of Older Persons.
How can society support the growing number of older people in their advancing years? How can their added years be a time of fulfillment and contribution to society - not of misery, struggling with disability and illness?
Alvarez said the U.N. Trust Fund, which initially had $1 million, is now down to about $5,000. Voluntary organizations have formed a Committee on Aging to help promote activities around the theme for the year - "Towards a society for all ages."